It’s very easy to think of Shakespeare as a one-off genius with a unique perspective on the world around him. However, Shakespeare was very much a product of the huge cultural shifts that were occurring in Elizabethan England during his lifetime.
The Renaissance in Shakespeare's Time
Broadly speaking, the renaissance movement is used to describe how Europeans moved away from the restrictive ideas of the Middle Ages. The ideology that dominated the Middle Ages was heavily focused on the absolute power of God and was enforced by the formidable Catholic Church.
From the Fourteenth Century onwards, people started to break away from this idea. The renaissance movement did not necessarily reject the idea of God, but rather questioned humankind’s relationship to God – an idea that caused an unprecedented upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy. In fact, Shakespeare himself may have been Catholic.
This focus on humanity created a new-found freedom for artists, writers and philosophers to be inquisitive about the world around them.
Shakespeare: the Renaissance Man
Shakespeare was born towards the end of the renaissance period and was one of the first to bring the renaissance’s core values to the theater.
Shakespeare Embraced the Renaissance in the Following Ways:
- Shakespeare updated the simplistic, two-dimensional writing style of pre-renaissance drama. He focused on creating “human” characters with psychologically complexity. Hamlet is perhaps the most famous example of this.
- The upheaval in the accepted social hierarchy allowed Shakespeare to explore the humanity of every character regardless of their social position. Even monarchs are given human emotions and are capable of making mistakes.
- Shakespeare utilized his knowledge of Greek and Roman classics when writing his plays. Before the renaissance, these texts had been suppressed by the Catholic Church.